Last night I saw something I never thought I'd get to see. About midway through his set, Mr. Bob Dylan led his band through 10 minutes of "Visions of Johanna," one of the greatest songs he ever recorded and therefore, by definition, one of the greatest songs in the rock canon. The performance was typified by the classic live Zimmerman approach, which is to deconstruct the melody and build it back up into something almost unrecognisable. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but Dylan seemed comfortable in this reading of "Visions," as the band coasted through the verses pumping muscle into each crescendo and eliciting cheers from the receptive crowd.
It was a strange set, at least from my limited live-Dylan exposure. Every song was culled from either one of his last two albums, Modern Times and Love and Theft, or from his revered pre-1968 work. The latest 60s tune he played was "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," whose quiet romanticism always sounded out of place on John Wesley Harding, looking ahead to Nashville Skyline, but also looking back to Freewheelin'. So suffice it to say that Dylan was about as nostalgic as I've seen him, playing a swirling, organ-tinged keyboard and occasionally dropping in a great harmonica solo.
The list of classics he reeled off was startling; "Like a Rolling Stone," "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," "Stuck Inside of Mobile," "Highway 61." Maybe the highlight of the bunch was an intense reading of "Ballad of a Thin Man," which came closest to a strict, literal arrangement. Occasionally, as these songs reached their climaxes, or during a powerful harmonica passage, you could see the quivering, almost spastic Dylan circa 1966, leading The Band through another heresy. These were rare glimpses of the enigma, seemingly comfortable with his legend and his legacy, but inscrutable as ever.
But for me, the high point of the show was seeing Elvis Costello on stage for the first time since his Spike tour in the late 80s. He sounded great then and he sounds great now. Sure, he tossed off a picture perfect "Alison" as anyone might expect, but his fiery versions of "King Horse" and "High Fidelity" off of the sporadically brilliant Get Happy! were a balm for these jaded ears. And speaking of fiery, how about a scathing rendition of "The River in Reverse," about Hurricane Katrina? Elvis seemed glad to be back on the road in America, where the former Angry Young Man has plenty to be angry about. As a result the show was heavy on protest, from the punk of "Radio, Radio" to the power pop of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." Elvis was in fine voice, pounding away on a distorted acoustic guitar, and he slowly won over a crowd that at first gave him polite but enthusiastic applause, and ended up on its feet cheering.
Together with Amos Lee, who had the enviable (or perhaps unenviable) task of opening the evening, we gladly sat and stood through nearly four hours of music. It was a great night, but I had to get up and go to work this morning and frankly, I'm exhausted. But it's a good kind of exhausted.